In politics, the activist artist Charles White (1918–79) was a revolutionary. His subject matter was radical. But his style was retrograde—figurative in a premodernist, representational mode. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective, on display through June 9, features roughly 100 drawings, paintings, and prints that demonstrate why the content of White’s art is still disruptive to the status quo and why his tour de force realist technique makes him one of the finest draftsmen America has ever produced.
This first major exhibition of White’s work in more than 30 years is long overdue. Installed chronologically, tracing White’s journey from Chicago to New York City to Los Angeles, the works have a coherent trajectory even as they show White’s technique evolving from overt accessibility to covert ambiguity. What remains the same throughout his transit from stylized realism to naturalistic realism to what might be called mysterious realism is White’s commitment to social justice.
An African American whose life spanned the Jim Crow era and the civil rights upheavals, White experienced plenty of racial discrimination firsthand. Art school administrators rescinded scholarships when they learned his race. In 1940s New Orleans, he was beaten when he entered a segregated restaurant. A streetcar conductor in Virginia threatened him at gunpoint; thugs assaulted him in Greenwich Village. As late as 1957, when White (then a well-known artist and a drawing instructor at what is now the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles) moved to Altadena, white residents moved out.
White’s wife, Frances Barrett White, recalled him saying, when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in 1955, “This is the signal to do battle. This is the way we will dismantle segregation.” Beginning with his earliest work as a muralist for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, White used art to fight bias: “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent,” he explained. To combat ignorance, which he saw as the root of prejudice, he portrayed black leaders in murals. “Because the white man does not know the history of the Negro,” White said in 1940, “he misunderstands him.”
Five Great American Negroes (1939) was his first public mural, an attempt to bring visibility to overlooked figures and insert them into the mainstream of American art. At a time when most visual representations of black people—when they were depicted at all—were caricatures, White memorialized heroes like Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington. His painting of the former slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth sums up White’s dualistic approach. In the mural, she raises her left hand in a fist while leaving her right hand open, as if inviting the viewer to shake and join the struggle.
These gestures exemplify White’s contrasting approaches throughout his career: toughness and tenderness. Some heartrending drawings have the impact of a punch in the gut, like the image of poor farmers in the graphite-on-paper There Were No Crops This Year (1940). A black woman holds an empty sack, her face etched with despair.
While No Crops This Year demonstrates White’s tender side, Harvest Talk (1953) presents two African American farmers sharpening a scythe. They stand upright rather than stooped, their strong arms and hands signaling empowerment. Although swirling dark clouds behind them seem ominously turbulent, the men are poised to reap the fruits of their labor.
Indeed, the exhibition is like a master class in both life drawing and African American history. Besides gritty images of leaders like Harriet Tubman, White portrays singers like Marian Anderson, Lead Belly, Bessie Smith, and Mahalia Jackson. The 1957 ink drawing Folksinger (Voice of Jericho: Portrait of Harry Belafonte) shows White’s friend Belafonte with his face spotlighted, his head thrown back and his mouth open as if trumpeting a call to tumble down the walls of Jericho—and the barriers to equality.
White is usually pigeonholed as an artist specializing in inspirational “images of dignity” meant to replace stereotypical representations, which he called “a plague of distortions.” But he could also reflect anger. His 1946 drawing The Return of the Soldier (Dixie Comes to New York) shows three black World War II servicemen, one of whom has been shot and killed by a white policeman. White portrays the cop as a demonic figure buttressed by a hooded Klansman.
In Birmingham Totem (1964), a lament for the four girls killed in a 1963 Alabama church bombing by white supremacists, a shrouded black figure sits on a pile of jagged, splintered boards. The lone figure dangles a plumb line over the wreckage, suggesting an architect preparing to rebuild after tragedy. In the nearly six-foot-tall drawing, the survivor is no passive victim but an active harbinger of resilience.
As the tumultuous events of the 1960s and ’70s piled up, White’s optimism about the power of art to effect positive change faltered. No longer did he favor drawing in black and white. His art became more complex and allusive rather than immediately legible. The change was like a shift from prose to poetry. His images were still message-driven, concerned with nonviolent resistance to oppression, but as a friend of White’s, the black activist Cecil Ferguson, said, White’s form of protest through art was “not guns and hand grenades. It’s about people, right?”
White’s late work is rooted in realism, but ambiguity supplants black-and-white certainty. To suggest this elusive quality, he invented an oil-wash technique that fuses painting and drawing. His devastating Wanted posters (based on pre–Civil War newspaper ads for fugitive slaves or slaves at auction) involved overlaying charcoal drawings with semiabstract layers of images and diluted burnt-umber paint. Sepia-colored figures seem to emerge from and dissolve into illegible backgrounds. Wanted Poster Series #17 (1971) portrays a mother and child beneath the word “sold” and an American eagle, an ironic symbol of liberty. Ghostly stenciled names appear on the side, including “Hastie,” the name of White’s Mississippi great-aunt who had been a slave. In a 1970 interview, he called the Wanted series “my own kind of way, of making an indictment.”
When White died in 1979, he was successful, internationally lauded. Yet while other black artists of his generation, like the collagist Romare Bearden and the Great Migration painter Jacob Lawrence, became household names, White’s fame faded. His eclipse partly resulted from his persistence in figurative art as tastes changed.
The fact that White is having a moment now (the retrospective has traveled from the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Museum of Modern Art to LACMA) signals that his art is once again highly relevant, in the social context of Black Lives Matter and the current upsurge of white supremacy. In the art world, socially engaged work is ascendant. Two of White’s former students at Otis lead the way: Kerry James Marshall, whose figurative painting Past Times sold for $21.1 million in 2018 (the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist), and the conceptual artist David Hammons.
As Marshall says of his mentor in a preface to the exhibition catalog, “Charles White kept common cause with the great masters of art history, holding up his end and passing the torch to the generations that followed him.”
CHARLES WHITE: A RETROSPECTIVE
• Feb. 17–June 9
• Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
OSCAR REJLANDER: ARTIST PHOTOGRAPHER
Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813–75) is often called the father of art photography. He’s also the great-great-grandfather of Photoshop. Through June 9, the J. Paul Getty Museum offers an expansive tour of work by this overlooked pioneer, a brilliant technical and creative innovator in the early days of photography. Surprisingly, Oscar Rejlander: Artist Photographer, showcasing 150 rare archival works, is Rejlander’s first retrospective (co-organized by the Canadian Photography Institute, part of Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, where the exhibition debuted last October).
In 1839, Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot introduced photography (or “sun painting”) to the world. It became so popular that by the 1850s photographers had transformed it into a commercial, industrialized process resulting in mass-produced, slapdash prints. The Swedish-born British artist Rejlander’s career was an exercise in resistance to the cheap prints that stripped a claim to aesthetic quality from the new medium. He insisted on its potential not just to document the visual world objectively but to express an artist’s vision.
Rejlander is mostly known for his mentorship of early photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron and Lewis Carroll (of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fame). He’s also recognized for portraits of famous figures like the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as for humorous, tableau-vivant-type images and compassionate depictions of homeless street urchins.
Yet he was a comparatively late bloomer. It wasn’t until 1853, at age 39, that Rejlander forsook portrait painting for photography. In just one afternoon, he learned the rudiments of the complex glass-plate wet collodion process from Talbot’s assistant. After that, he was off and shooting, constantly experimenting, pushing the new medium into the realm of fine art. His main technical advance was also a conceptual breakthrough. He practiced “combination printing,” sandwiching snippets of multiple negatives into one print to create an illusion of space and depth. His ambition went beyond technical progress; he wanted to imbue photographs with narrative and allegorical power by composing scenes that otherwise existed only in the artist’s imagination.
Rejlander’s epic 1857 masterpiece Two Ways of Life, or Hope in Repentance (probably conceived with the help of Prince Albert, who along with Queen Victoria was an ardent fan of Rejlander’s work) fuses more than 30 negatives into a single print. The image is a philosophical morality tale portraying two youths: one who heeds the siren call of vice (depicted as beckoning supine nudes) and one who pivots toward virtue, symbolized by figures engaged in learning, labor, and healing.
Initially acclaimed as a technical breakthrough, Two Ways of Life proved a turning point for Rejlander. Victorian prudes denounced the work as indecent, claiming that it showed “nude prostitutes in flesh-and-blood truthfulness and minuteness of detail.” The tide was turning in photography as well, toward unmanipulated photographs, free of artifice and darkroom trickery.
Stung by censure, Rejlander began to focus his lens on portraits, gaining unmatched expertise in capturing light in his subjects’ eyes and seemingly natural, spontaneous expressions on their faces. With an exposure time of 30 seconds to one minute, catching fleeting feelings was difficult. It was this skill that led Charles Darwin to commission Rejlander to contribute images for his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Of the book’s 30 illustrations of sentiments like disgust and defiance, Rejlander supplied 18. In his self-portrait to demonstrate “Helplessness,” he shrugs, brow furrowed and palm upturned in a gesture of impotence.
With staged photos by stars like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman considered high art and digital photo manipulation ubiquitous, it’s no wonder that Rejlander is now hailed as an important progenitor. He should be recognized for his stubborn belief in photography’s potential as an art form equal to painting and sculpture—a once heretical notion regarding what was considered merely a mechanical product.
OSCAR REJLANDER: ARTIST PHOTOGRAPHER
• Mar. 12–June 9
• J. Paul Getty Museum, N. Sepulveda Blvd. and Getty Center Dr., Los Angeles
Carol Strickland is a cultural journalist and the author of six books, including The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to the Present. She wrote “The Lasting Impact of Sea Ranch” in Alta, Spring 2019.
Three L.A. venues for more on black culture and innovative photography
• Charles White Elementary School Gallery: Located inside what was originally the Otis Art Institute campus where White taught, the gallery presents a companion exhibition focusing on his contributions as a teacher and a role model for black L.A. artists.
• Skirball Cultural Center: Consisting of more than 40 portraits of music and fashion icons by African American activist and photographer Kwame Brathwaite (born in 1938), all taken in the 1960s and ’70s, Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite opens April 11 and is the artist’s first major survey. skirball.org
• Annenberg Space for Photography: The dynamic show Photoville LA, taking place April 26–28 and May 2–5, is unconventionally installed in repurposed shipping containers, photo cubes, and light boxes.